European Parliament adopts report on access to EU documents - but what happened to citizens' rights of access? updated twice 17.11.00



At its plenary session on 16 November the European Parliament (EP) meeting in Strasbourg adopted a report put forward by Michael Cashman (PSE) and Hanji Maij-Weggen (PPE) which forms the parliament's first reading response to the Commission's proposal for a new code on access to EU documents. The EP had before it 16 amendments tabled by the Green/ALE group and the ELDR (Liberal) group - five of the amendments to the main report were put forward jointly by the Greens and ELDR - all bar one were rejected by the parliament.

The report went through with the backing of the PSE, Socialist group (effectively social democrats) and the PPE (conservative right group) the two biggest parties in the parliament. On the final vote 409 voted in favour 3 against with the Green MEPs abstaining. The vote on the legislative resolution has been postponed until January.

The Council of the European Union (the 15 EU governments) are expected to adopt their "common position" in December. The Commission put forward a draft new code in January. Unless the Council agrees with the EP's report the Council's "common position" will be the basis of further discussion - the new code has to be agreed by May 2001.

What the UK papers said, 17.11.00

The Guardian newspaper duly reported that a:

"landmark vote by members of the European Parliament yesterday threw down a challenge to secretive governments and eurocrats. By an overwhelming majority the MEPs backed new freedom of information proposals that would grant the right of access to most official documents from any institution in Brussels.. "This vote sends the signal that we are going to deliver something that gives far greater access", Mr Cashman said."

While The Independent said the European Parliament:

"demanded new and sweeping rights of access to European Union documents... Yesterday's document drawn up by Labour MEP Michael Cashman specifically attacked the regime, created hurriedly by the EU's Council of Ministers for exchanging sensitive military information with NATO [the "Solana Decision"].... Mr Cashman declared that MEPs had "sounded the death knell for this, and for other attempts to stitch up secrecy deals behind closed doors".

Comment: The gap between "spin" and substance is as usual enormous. The PSE/PPE alliance in the parliament did indeed mean an "overwhelming number of MEPs" voted for the report but does this make it a report giving the citizens "far greater access"? All bar one of the amendments which have made the report half-decent were voted down routinely by the same alliance.

One of the reasons why this report can be presented as a great advance is because its author thinks the Commission's draft code represents current practice under the 1993 Decision (see, Explanatory report), which is completely untrue. Current practice is much, much better that it would be under the Commission's proposal.

As to sounding the "death knell" for the "Solana Decision" this comes from the rapporteur who embraced the "Solana Decision" back in August and amended the report to accommodate it. After the furore across the EU over the way the decision had been taken - without consulting any parliaments or civil society - and its effect - to permanently exclude from access whole categories of documents - the report was hastily revised in September. In the adopted report is the catch-all category of documents covering "miltary matters" (the same phrase as in the Council's draft common position) which can be refused to applicants.

The Green/EFA group of MEPs, press release on the vote: Green/EFA

Where now?

For citizens and civil society the best way to evaluate the EP's report is to compare it with the present practice which has been in place since 1993. Among the problems with the present code of access to EU documents are:

i) only the Council has a public register of documents available on the internet, the Commission does not. The Council register excludes whole categories of documents - not just those on foreign policy, military matters, and "non-military crisis management" under the "Solana Decision" but also thousands of documents which are not even classified (this is subject of two complaints to the European Ombudsman by Statewatch). The EP report supports the creation of registers of documents by the EU institutions but creates so many exclusions as to make a complete registers meaningless - for example, agreeing that documents which give officials the so-called "space to think" are excluded, by extending the "exceptions" under which access to documents can be refused to include the very broad category of "military matters" and by suggesting that non-EU governments and international bodies can hand over "public" (sanitised) version of reports which can be handed out to EU citizens,.

ii) the EP report does reject the Commission's proposal that applicants who regularly apply for documents (repetitive applications) should be penalised. This is a positive aspect of the report.

iii) the EP report does respond to the Commission's proposal that the "reproduction of documents", which currently excludes reproduction for "commercial purposes", be extended to include to "exploit for any other economic purpose". It proposes that this provision should be deleted but puts in its place an alternative which is quite unclear as to its effect - an amendment to clarify that public documents should be able to be freely introduced while those of individual authors (eg: playwrights) should be protected by rejected by the EP.

iv) the EP report then goes beyond its brief, that is, to "enshrine" the rights of citizens to access to EU documents, by seeking to introduce a whole series of provisions to protect its own interests and the interests of the Council and the Commission through "interinstitutional agreements" (between the three Brussels-based institutions). In addition it wants documents to be "classified" by the "authors" (institution officials, police, customs and immigration officers) at the time of writing - such officials are not well-known for believing in openness. The EP report agrees that certain documents, like those under the "Solana Decision", should be permanently excluded from public access - though it wants to set up a special, vetted, EP committee to see them. The danger in these proposals is that they will be a "hostage to fortune" and be picked up by the Council, see Council report

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor commented following the vote:

"Despite the "spin" in the media citizens will gain a few more rights of access to documents, but lose others. The report adopted by the European Parliament gives more new rights to the EU institutions than to the citizen and thus subverts the intention of the Amsterdam Treaty.

It is time for civil society to engage in the debate and insist that access to documents/freedom of information is a fundamental right and that without it democracy will lose any meaning."

To encourage this debate "Essays for an Open Europe" will be published on this site (Friday 17 November)

To follow the EP vote researchers need to look at the following documents:

1.     Michael Cashman (PSE) and Hanja Maij-Weggen (PPE): Report, Part 1 (Word 97)
1.a.  Statewatch's proposed amendments to the report:
Amendments

2.     Michael Cashman (PSE) and Hanja Maij-Weggen (PPE): Explanatory Report, Part 2 (pdf)
2.a.  Statewatch's commentary on the Explanatory Report:
Commentary

3.     Presidency report to COREPER, on the EP's report: Council

EP vote documents

4. Amendments tabled by Green and ELDR groups: Amendments (pdf)

5. List of votes to be taken: Voting list (pdf)

6. The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a federation of environmental groups in Europe, has put out a briefing to MEPs calling on them to support all the amendments being put forward: EEB briefing on the amendments: EEB

Backround documents

7. Background documentation, full-text, is on: Statewatch's Observatory on access to EU documents



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